Can happiness be bad for your child?

For a few years, now, the British government, hounded by professionals and various do-gooders, has been exercised over the question of how to make children happier. To counter a veritable epidemic of anxiety and depression among youngsters, education authorities have engaged the services of a happiness expert from the United States to conduct workshops for teachers and have run pilot programmes on emotional literacy in schools. Richard Layard, a professor at the London School of Economics and a peer in the House of Lords, goes so far as to say that teaching “the secrets of happiness” should be the central purpose of schools.  

It looked like sabotage, then, when it was revealed early this week that researchers had discovered that sad children could concentrate better than happy ones and so cope better with tasks demanding attention to detail -- which real learning generally does. Efforts to boost happiness in children may have a negative impact on their cognitive development, warned academics at the University of Plymouth in the UK and the University of Virginia in the United States. “The good feeling that accompanies happiness comes at a hidden cost,” they wrote in the journal Developmental Science. “It leads to a particular style of thinking that is suited for some types of situations, but not others.” (1) 

Does that mean it is time to enforce a little misery among the young and the sanguine? Not at all. The fact is that the study tells us very little about either happiness or misery, which are stable conditions; it tells us mainly about feelings, or moods, produced by passing stimuli.

Here is what happened.

Children aged six and seven were given a series of tasks to identify shapes after watching different types of film clips. Those who had just viewed a scene from The Lion King, in which the cub Simba mourns the death of his father, did far better than those in high spirits after a chorus of The Bare Necessities from the Disney classic The Jungle Book. The same pattern was found in tests on older children conducted with sad music (Mahler’s Adagietto) or happy music (Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik) playing in the background. Children who performed tasks in a neutral mood -- after watching a clip from The Last Unicorn, in which a knight arrives at a castle -- did as well as those whose mood was sad. In other words, say the authors, “sadness did not improve performance, rather, happiness worsened it”. 

Lead researcher Simone Schnall describes the psychology behind the findings: “Happiness indicates that things are going well, which leads to a global, top-down style of information processing. Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-oriented, analytical processing.” She hastens to add that other research has shown that a positive mood is beneficial when a task calls for creative thinking. “But this particular research demonstrates that when attention to detail is required, it may do more harm than good.”

What could be the practical application of this experiment? Should parts of the curriculum requiring creativity should be held in the morning, preceded by selections from Mozart or The Jungle Book, and those requiring analytical thought in the afternoon, preceded by a dampening dose of Verdi’s Requiem or a chapter of Hard Times? Do schools have to choose between producing cheerful, creative youngsters and solemn or gloomy little swots?

Of course not. The study is at most a warning that, as the authors note at the end of their article, “artificially inflating a child’s mood may have unintended and possibly undesirable consequences”. That is a useful piece of information for anyone who thinks that teaching kids to be happy is a matter of a few feel-good exercises. But who really thinks that?

The kind of happiness that counts, academically and socially, is a deep and steady sense of wellbeing that can weather the surface squalls of passing moods, disappointments and even major setbacks. Happiness is not the bubble of pleasure that surrounds a trip to the movies or McDonalds; it is the sense that life is worth living even when your parents refuse to take you on such an outing. And it is worth living precisely because you have parents who love you enough to say no to some of the things you think will make you happy, because they know more about the subject than you do.

Happiness like that is not going to interfere with anyone’s ability to handle the full range of mental tasks that a proper education demands. There’s a cost, it is true, but it comes off one’s pleasure quotient, not intellectual powers.

Teachers everywhere know this. They are well aware that the quality of home life -- the presence of two parents who are able to impart to their children good values and habits -- is the key to the behavioural and mental health problems they encounter in so many young students. Family breakdown was a major issue at teachers’ conferences in the UK earlier this year. It emerged as the leading factor in a recent poll of children and adults on the subject of children’s happiness. It has been highlighted by masses of social research.  

Authorities who really care about children’s wellbeing know where they should start: support for the two-parent family based on marriage -- real marriage, that is, not the up and coming look-alikes. Focusing on remedial “emotional intelligence” lessons in schools is a feeble substitute that looks more and more dishonest.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


(1) “A hidden cost of happiness in children,” by Simone Schnall et al, Developmental Science, June 2008


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